Secretary Antony J. Blinken Virtual Discussion with Students on Ice

02/26/2021 07:30 PM EST

Antony J. Blinken, Secretary of State

Washington, D.C.

MR GREEN: Good afternoon. Hello and bonjour, Secretary – Mr. Secretary. It’s a pleasure to meet you. My name is Geoff Green, and I’m the founder and the president of the Students on Ice Foundation. I am joining you today from the National Capital Region of Canada, here in Gatineau, Quebec. And I’d like to begin by acknowledging that this is the traditional unceded territory of the Algonquin Anishinaabe people, who have lived on this land and these waters, like the mighty Ottawa River not far from here, since time immemorial.

We are grateful and thrilled to have the opportunity to speak with you today and to be part of your virtual visit to Canada. Bienvenue. For the past 20 years, the Students on Ice Foundation has been leading educational expeditions to the Arctic and to the Antarctic, cornerstones of our global ecosystem. And by immersing youth in nature and connecting them to the land, to the ocean, to peers and mentors, and to challenges and opportunities facing our planet, this has been inspiring diverse young leaders, innovators, and global citizens.

Today, more than 3,300 alumni from 52 countries have participated, including hundreds of youth from across the United States. These expeditions have been life-changing, and they’re making a difference in remarkable ways. From indigenous-led research and conservation, engagement in the sustainable blue economy, to youth delegations that go to Arctic policy conferences and global climate change meetings.

Community-based efforts. Our alumni are taking action for a healthy and sustainable future at all levels. This includes the five exceptional youths from across Canada who I am proud to welcome to our roundtable discussion today: Julia Trombley, Will Sanderson, Enooyaq Sudlovenick, Nicholas Flowers, and Allisa Sallans. Our Students on Ice programs are possible thanks to many global partnerships, and this includes our great friends at the U.S. embassy in Canada who have been supporting youth and educators on our expeditions and have helped to make the event today possible. So thank you.

This and so many experiences with our biggest neighbor over the years has reinforced our friendship, shared values, and our shared commitment as Arctic nations to taking on climate change, environmental protection, and increasing collaboration awareness and support for the Arctic and its peoples.

So it is my honor to welcome the United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Mr. Secretary, thank you for joining us today to discuss bilateral collaboration in the Arctic and a few other issues facing the Arctic and our two nations. So with that, I turn it over to you, and a very warm virtual welcome to Canada.

SECRETARY BLINKEN: Geoff, thank you so much. And it’s wonderful to be with all of you virtually, if not in person. Thank you for letting our delegation join you here as well today. I’m anxious to be in Canada in person, but for now, given COVID, we’ll rely on technology. And I’m grateful that we have it and that we can get together this way. And I thank you – maybe it’s the wrong word for it given that this is Students on Ice, but thank you for the warm welcome – (laughter) – which is very, very much appreciated.

I have to tell you as well I’m really pleased that we have several Fulbright and International Visitor Leadership Program alumni here with us today. These are programs that I feel very, very strongly about. When I last worked at the State Department, it’s something I focused on. I’ve seen the extraordinary value they bring. Even if I didn’t I wouldn’t have much choice, because during President Obama’s administration my wife actually ran these programs at the State Department, so it’s something that’s really close to home.

But the truth of the matter is each of you represents these ties, personal ties, between our two countries. And that makes a huge difference, and it’s a lasting difference that I’ve seen over generations.

We’re, of course, not only neighbors but friends and allies. We share ideas and we share ideals in many ways, and we are constantly working together to find common solutions. I had the opportunity to spend some time with counterparts from the Canadian Government and with Prime Minister Trudeau just a short while ago, and it’s hard to think of two countries that are more in sync, more aligned, more in common in terms of their shared aspirations for our people and for the future. And that’s very, very gratifying.

The United States and Canada, of course, are Arctic nations. And as you all know a lot better than I do, since the Arctic makes up about 40 percent of Canadian territory, it really is a unique and important place where we have a responsibility, I think, to work closely together to address a lot of shared challenges but also, I think, shared opportunities.

Like Canada, the United States seeks sustainable economic development that supports local and indigenous communities and respects principles of good governance and transparency. These are very important principles for us that we share with you.

We’re cooperating closely between governments across the Arctic region and in regional institutions like the Arctic Council. We’re working together to try to promote safety and security, that sustainable economic growth that we both want, and continued cooperation among the Arctic states to try to support and strengthen a rules-based order throughout the region. And we throw these terms around easily, but they really do mean something in our lives and in the lives of our citizens. When countries are working together based on a shared set of rules and obligations and responsibilities, that’s how we’re going to make progress. If not, if we’re not doing that, we’re going to have a free-for-all, we’re going to have chaos, and we may well have conflict. So we both, I think, believe that very strongly and have a real stake in that.

But this goes beyond, of course, government-to-government work. My colleagues at the U.S. embassy and our consulates in Canada also contribute to this cooperation through cultural exchanges, academic exchanges, including the Fulbright Arctic Initiative with funds from both Canada and the United States, which is jointly led by an American and Canadian scholar, and we’ve got other programs in the region. Bringing together all of these different interested groups and individuals and stakeholders is something I think we also do very well together and something that makes a difference.

And of course, I’m very proud that we have been able to support Students on Ice for the better part of a decade now. One of the issues I just want to mention as we have a conversation, and maybe we can come back to it, is, of course, climate change, because it’s maybe the driving issue of our times. And I think you know the United States is re-engaged on climate and on helping to lead in the efforts and in international responsibilities. We rejoined, of course, the Paris accord. We’ll be holding a meeting of leaders in April, and then there’s a very, very important gathering at the – toward the end of the year that the United Kingdom will be hosting in Glasgow for the COP-26. But we’re determined to use this year to make real progress in assuring our common future in tackling climate change.

But I’m real eager to have a conversation, to hear from you, take any questions, but I would be remiss if I didn’t also make sure that you knew who’s here with me at the table. We have – and also on our video screen we have our charge d’affaires in Canada, Katherine Brucker, who is here, I think, on the screen. We have our senior official for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment, Ambassador Marcia Bernicat, who is here with us today. We have our assistant secretary for the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs Julie Chung. We have an assistant secretary for Educational and Cultural Affairs Matthew Lussenhop, who is running the bureau that my wife used to run a few years ago, so he’s especially important today. And the chief of staff to the State Department Suzy George, and we’re very, very happy to be with all of you.

(In French.)

Let’s open it up to questions, comments, anything anyone wants to talk about.

MR GREEN: Merci beaucoup, Mr. Secretary. Boy, some wonderful words they have been. I’d love to dig into so much of that with you. I do have five students with me that are eager to ask you some questions, but I would just echo your points about the Arctic definitely does shape who we are as a country here in Canada, and I think the same applies to the United States, and it also shapes the world. That’s why it’s so important that we’re having this discussion and addressing these issues that we’re touching on today.

The first question I have comes from Julia Trombley. Julia was on our 2017 Arctic expedition. She’s from Fort Erie, Ontario, a recent graduate from the University of Guelph, and she was part of the Students on Ice delegation at the National Youth Reconciliation Conference and also just with us in Washington for the Arctic Futures 2050 Conference recently. Over to you, Julia.

QUESTION: Thank you, Geoff. And hi, Secretary Blinken. It’s a pleasure to meet you. The question I’d like to ask is if your 22-year-old self was living in the year 2021, what would he be passionate about, and what advice would you give him on pursuing that passion?

SECRETARY BLINKEN: Wow. Well, that’s a – it’s a – that’s a wonderful question, Julia. First of all, it’s very good to see you. And gosh, I think there are a few things. So I think that in terms of what my passions would be, in many ways they’d probably be not dissimilar either now or then, which is to say I had a huge opportunity when I was growing up both to have a family that was really interested in goings on beyond the borders of the United States. They – conversations at the table often turned to questions of foreign policy and what different countries were doing.

And then when I was nine, I actually wound up moving from New York to France, to Paris, and so I grew up in Paris from age 9 to 18 before coming back to the United States for university. And that was in so many ways a remarkable experience, but in particular it gave me the opportunity to see my own country through the eyes of others, and it also I think turned me into a junior diplomat, because when you’re an American abroad or a Canadian abroad conversations come up, arguments come up, discussions come up about various things that your country is doing or not doing, and you wind up getting into those conversations, and it really I think got me interested in diplomacy and how different countries work together and how they deal with some of the differences that they have. So that was a passion that was deep-rooted. And now I get to give it some expression actually working on it every day here at the State Department.

I think the other advice – the advice that I would give probably now to my 22-year-old self was that besides the passion for foreign policy and diplomacy, I was very passionate about music and remain so. But when I was 22, I probably still harbored the vague ambition that I might somehow make a life and a career out of music. And my current self would probably say forget about it, the talent isn’t there. But that only came with hindsight.

But in all seriousness too, here’s what I would really say, and that’s one of the greatest blessings in life is to be passionate about something, and an even greater blessing if you’re able to act on that passion. And if you find that in your life, whatever it is, that will I think make for the most fulfilling, happiest, most rewarding life possible. And the hard truth is not everyone finds it, or even people who find it may not have the opportunity to really follow it.

But if you’re in that relatively small group of folks who really find the passion and have an opportunity to follow it, do it. It will be so remarkably rewarding, and it will take you to places, literally and figuratively, that you couldn’t even imagine when you’re 21 or 22. And certainly in my case, developing a passion early for foreign policy and government and international relations has taken me to places I never would have imagined.

MR GREEN: Thank you, Mr. Secretary. And thank you, Julia, for that question. Inspiring words especially for youth setting off on their journeys in life.

The next question that we have for you comes all the way from Nunavut, from Enooyaq Sudlovenick from Iqaluit. And Enooyaq was part of our 2018 Arctic expedition. She has a master’s in veterinary medicine and is currently pursuing her Ph.D. at the University of Manitoba, focusing on beluga whale health and the incorporation of Inuit knowledge with western science. Over to you, Enooyaq.

QUESTION: Thanks, Geoff. Unnuhatkut, good day, Mr. Secretary. It’s an honor to be here to speak to you today. And my question is: Last month President Biden announced a temporary moratorium on oil and gas leasing in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. So will local indigenous communities be consulted on any future plans of natural resource development in the Arctic?

SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thanks so much for your question, and wonderful to meet you virtually. So when President Biden signed the executive order in question, one of the things he said is we’re going to review the oil and gas leasing program. And some of this gets a little bit complicated in terms of the different government institutions and entities that get involved, but basically, the order calls on our Secretary of the Interior to pause new oil and gas – natural gas leases on public land or in offshore waters pending this comprehensive review, and that includes the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

So what happens then is there’s kind of a process by which the Secretary of the Interior really sets up a way to consider this and to review this, and I think the President – President Biden – sent a very strong signal of his direction and the need to consult by nominating someone who may be known to you, and that is a remarkable congresswoman, Deb Haaland, for our interior secretary, and she is going to be a remarkable interior secretary, someone who is deeply experienced as a legislator but also an enrolled member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe, and I expect we’ll hear a lot more on her plans once she’s actually confirmed. We’re in the early days and she has to get into office.

But we had a meeting earlier this week with President Biden and Prime Minister Trudeau and our teams, and we have a roadmap between our countries for a renewed partnership between the United States and Canada. And President Biden and Prime Minister Trudeau also recognized the ecological importance of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and in particular, they agreed to work together to help safeguard the Porcupine caribou herd, the calving grounds that are truly invaluable to local people’s culture and subsistence. The prime minister and the President agreed also to be partners in protecting nature, including by supporting indigenous-led conservation efforts. So these were things that were front and center in the exchange that we had and the conversation we had.

They also agreed to work together on environmental restoration and conservation efforts, and to try to advance nature-based climate solutions. And that’s also critical. But in advancing climate solutions and protecting nature, I think both of them also agreed on the importance of doing this work with indigenous peoples, with subnational governments, with workers; with stakeholders, including civil society, including youth, including business, including industry.

The bottom line is on so many different things, including this, we have to bring everyone together who has an interest, who has a stake in the issue. If one group tries to do it while ignoring the needs, the concerns of others, it’s probably not going to be sustainable anyway. And so I think this is something that both President Biden and Prime Minister Trudeau feel very, very strongly. We have to approach all of these challenges together and find ways to advance them together. So I think that’s the spirit as well as the practical way we’re going to approach this problem.

MR GREEN: (In Inuktitut.) And thank you, Secretary Blinken, for that excellent answer. I’m being told we only have time for one more question from the students, and that’s coming from Will Sanderson from Kingston, Ontario, who, in addition to taking part in our Arctic expedition in 2014, was a member of our youth delegation to the 2018 Arctic Circle Assembly in Iceland, and he’s also been part of our 2019 Climate Action Cohort, which is a program at Students on Ice helping to develop young climate leaders. So over to you, Will.

QUESTION: Yeah, thank you very much, Geoff, and nice to meet you, Secretary Blinken. It’s an honor. In recent years, there’s been a greater push by the international community to look towards the Arctic for economic development, whether that be for resources exploration or to pursue newly open trade routes. I’m curious how you think Arctic nations like Canada and the United States should respond to these international pushes, and how we can ensure that Arctic conservation remains the top priority.

SECRETARY BLINKEN: Will, thanks very much, and I – that’s an important question and one that I think we have to be very focused on. Because in the Arctic, as really anywhere else, but acutely in the Arctic, we have to be able to strike the right balance between conservation and development. And an integral part of that has to be, again, engagement with the communities most directly affected, with Arctic communities, and that respects their right to economic development, but also, of course, their profound interest in sustainability and in conservation of the habitat that they’re living in.

I also don’t think, at the end of the day, that development and conservation have to be mutually exclusive. It does not need to be a zero-sum game. And in many ways, they can even actually reinforce each other. If you’ve got the right incentives, if you’ve got the right oversight, conservation can deliver economic benefits to communities. And we see that parenthetically when we’re talking about dealing with climate change. We see that in the extraordinary opportunities afforded by the development of green technology. That can be a powerful economic tool as well as, of course, a powerful tool to dealing with climate change.

So I think that through bilateral country-to-country work, multilateral engagement in these international organizations and gatherings, including the launch of an expanded U.S.-Canada Arctic dialogue and cooperation in places like the Arctic Council, we can share a lot of experience on how to strike that balance, how to get it right, because it is so important. And I think we can also consider models of sustainable development that have worked in other regions and may have promise in the Arctic too.

We need to learn from our experience in other places, we need to learn from our mistakes, and we need to learn from others. No one has a monopoly on the right answers, and I think there’s a premium on making sure we’re taking in the experiences that others have had in trying to get this balance right. But the bottom line is you’re 100 percent right to be to be focused on this, but I do think we can do this in a way that is not one or the other.

MR GREEN: Thank you again, Secretary Blinken, and thank you, Will, for that question. I think we could ask you questions all day long, but, unfortunately, I don’t think the time will allow for that. So I do want to thank everyone for those questions, and Secretary Blinken for your thoughtful responses.

It’s clear how informed and engaged many of our – well, our students and Ice alumni are, and many youth are today – global youth addressing global issues, and that’s really important. Their voices and actions are critical now and in the future. And again, thank you to our alumni today, because they truly showcase the passion and concern that Canadian youth have for the Arctic, for the environment, and these other pressing challenges and opportunities ahead.

It’s been an honor to speak with you today, Mr. Secretary. We really look forward to a continued dialogue together, to seeing you here in Canada, and to strengthening U.S.-Canadian – this incredible partnership and friendship that we share. And perhaps we might even get you on to a Students on Ice Arctic expedition in the future.

So it’s now my pleasure to introduce Lynda Brown and Heidi Langille. They’re Inuit cultural ambassadors and throat singers, and they perform under the name Siqniup Qilautu.

Lynda and Heidi, the virtual stage is yours.

QUESTION: (In Inuktitut.) It’s a pleasure. (Inaudible) or any traditional throat singing was traditionally done between two women as a friendly competition, and you’re trying to trip the other person up, so there’s a leader and a follower. And the leader sets the rhythm, the pace, and the sound, and the follower comes about half a second afterwards. We have 3 different types of throat songs: imitations, competitions, and lullabies. And we’ll be demonstrating two different types: an imitation song from Northern Quebec and a lullaby from Nunavut.

So the first one we’re going to do is (inaudible).

(A song is sung.)

QUESTION: Lynda won that song. So that was part of the (inaudible). The next one we’re going to do for you is a lullaby. It comes from Baker Lake, which is the geographic center of Canada. And it’s a lullaby, so it’s much softer. And oftentimes, we would put our babies to sleep when they were in (inaudible) with this song. So this is the love song.

(A song is sung.)

SECRETARY BLINKEN: That’s wonderful and extraordinary. I am amazed at – there’s got to be a synthesizer or a lot of other people there. I can’t believe that – what you’re able to do just the two of you together. And the lullaby – so I may need to borrow that because I have a two-year-old and a one-year-old, and I want to try that out. So if we can get a recording or maybe just come on by next time you’re in Washington. Thank you so much.

MR GREEN: Thank you so much. I think Heidi and Linda actually have an album they can send you.

SECRETARY BLINKEN: Wonderful. And by the way, Geoff, for anyone who didn’t get a chance to ask a question or make a comment, please just send that along and I’ll find a way to get you an answer.

MR GREEN: Hey, that would be – that – it’s really appreciated. Both Nicholas and Allisa had some great questions for you. We’ll pass those on.


MR GREEN: And all the best.

SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thank you all, and good luck. I’ve got to say, just in conclusion – and it’s to the point that Geoff was making a couple of minutes ago – your voice, your vision, your ideas have never been more important. There’s so many usually consequential and complicated changes going on in the world, and we need your engagement, we need your ideas, we need your passion. Because the longer you go on in life, sometimes you get a little bit set in your ways, and maybe set in your ideas and set in the way you look at things. And the great advantage of a new generation is to be able to bring fresh ideas, new ideas, perspectives, energy (inaudible).